Here’s how councils can jumpstart housebuilding

Houses in Bristol. Image: Getty.

A lot has gone wrong in the UK housing market to create a crisis as bad as the one we’ve got. Our biggest problem though, is that local authorities don’t build enough anymore. 

At Key Cities therefore, our answer is simple: councils should take the lead on solving the housing crisis. We are proposing an ambitious package of policy reforms – lifting restrictions so councils can borrow to finance building, more powers so councils can bring land into use, and revising central government funding formulas to reward councils which build with extra cash for public services.

Sajid Javid recently talked about borrowing more to build homes. The first thing he can do is lift the cap on the amount local authorities can borrow under the Housing Revenue Account, so councils can bring us up to 300,000 homes per year. Local authorities can then borrow what they need to build more homes and use the money from rents and sales of new homes to pay back their debts. Central government grants would be welcome to get building started – but in many cases, Whitehall wouldn’t need to borrow an extra penny.

To help councils plan more efficiently, the government should allow local authorities to reserve a certain amount of stock from being eligible for, and so guarantee that councils won’t lose any income from. Right to Buy sales. This will allow local authorities to preserve more social housing stock and get the income necessary to replace the homes which are sold.


Key Cities is also asking for the powers to take land which has planning permission, but construction has not commenced within a designated time, and use it to build houses ourselves. We also support strengthening compulsory purchase powers to get viable land into use, and further powers to get empty homes back into use, including through council tax. We’ve now got 1.4m empty homes in the UK, and even getting some of them back into use will relieve much of the immediate shortage and price pressure, particularly in the private rented sector.

In this endeavour, we are already working in partnership with the private and third sectors, and encouraging positive developments that promote quality housing and a mix of tenure. But local authorities must lead the process. We are the ones with a duty to provide local services, and we are the ones ultimately who have to make our cities good places to live.

Whitehall policy should take that into account. Central government funding formulas should reward councils which build more homes with extra funds for schools, hospitals and road improvements. In the end, we’ll only get homes built if the communities support them – and they’ll only support them if they know there will be a new GP surgery, or a new primary school, or a new junction to ease the traffic. And it’s no good to wait until the roads are gridlocked to act.

The Budget in November is an ideal opportunity for the government to set this right. All these powers are within their gift, and would jumpstart housebuilding immediately. This crisis is a generational challenge, and it’s time we found the guts to solve it. 

Councillor John Merry is deputy city mayor of Salford, and housing lead for the Key Cities group of 21 cities.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.